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Abdou Samake: "By helping shape kids, we help shape the future for humanity"

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Former Valour FC defender Abdoulaye Gilbert Samake was born in Mali and moved to Canada when he was six years old. After arriving in Winnipeg in 2023 to play for Valour, Samake spent his spare time volunteering for the charity Inner City Youth Alive.

By Abdou Samake

Since I was 16, I have been working with kids in summer camps or after-school programs. For me, it is a pleasure and a passion to work with them. They are so smart, so fresh in their minds. They are exploring how to navigate the world. By being a good role model, by being directly one-on-one with them, you have a chance to impact them in the simplest of ways.

I arrived as an immigrant to Canada, and because my parents had to work long hours, I used to go to the YMCA and attended summer camps. At these places, I looked up to the volunteers as big brothers and sisters. They had an impact on me: they would teach me about values, principles and good conduct.

Last year when I came to Winnipeg, I found this organisation called Inner City Youth Alive. It's in a challenging neighbourhood and kids have this place – this wonderful place – where they can come after school, get a meal, be with friends, and play games. It's been a great opportunity to work there. I get to just be with the kids and spend time with them one-on-one. It's not about me; most of them don’t have a clue that I play soccer because it’s not about that.

All the beautiful values that you learn by being a footballer – discipline, work ethic, teamwork – those things are a part of me. Hopefully I can transmit these values by just being around kids. There is nothing complicated about it. I don’t try to be an authority figure, acting like I know better than them. In fact, I learn as much from them as they do from me.  

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They are from different age groups that range from six to 18. I am fond of the late teenagers because you can be direct, talk about your life, and they can relate to it and vice versa. With the younger kids, it’s more playful, and there is beauty to that as well.

How I joined was a great lesson for me. I started looking into volunteering opportunities but invested so much time in football. You get so caught up in your own little world, your performance and objectives.

Results were not going our way and at the end of the year, I had a hamstring injury. My season was finished and my injury crushed me. I thought: what can I do now? I had already connected with Inner City Youth Alive and the moment I entered the place and saw all these kids, it put things in perspective. There are people whose day-to-day lives are quite difficult and just to have the chance to be with them, listen to them and bring them some positive energy, really got me out of my rut.

These kids come from homes where it's very challenging. Some arrive with no coats on even when it's really cold. We serve food because they’re not well nourished. Some of them hold a lot of tension or anger.

Some have drug problems in their house, some of them are up late at night, hearing ‘things’ in the house, and they are accustomed to violence. You can tell by the way they act. A couple of weeks ago, some kids were hitting each other, punching. I asked: “What's going on?” And they laughed at me: “This is how we play”.

The first times I went there, it was heartbreaking. You see these kids and you want to cry for them – but crying for them does nothing. What you can do is be strong for them, be a role model. A lot of these kids don't have role models. I'm not saying I'm perfect at all, but I try to be an example and support them. There's nothing glamorous about it. I'm just there, spending time with the kids.

Abdou Samake CC
Abdou Samake

I would love to see more players do this because you grow so strong by having to deal with the difficulties of this game. To keep getting a contract year-to-year is so challenging. You have to compete every day, work with team-mates and deal with pressure. You have a certain strength that kids can find inspiration in.

I can see these kids change even during the same day. For instance, a kid will come and at first be in the corner, angry and defensive. I understand the sentiments he might be feeling, so I’m not going to baby him. I go to him: “Hey, let's go, let's play”. And so right away you see his demeanour change. The grumpy kid all of a sudden is playing and able to let those emotions out. He's there wrestling for the ball with a couple of boys, and you see a little smile come in. That’s what it's all about.

I am there once a week, for three to four hours in the afternoon. I eat with the kids, we go into the gym and there is a little Bible study time, which also is a big thing. Even if some of them are not religious, messages of hope are important for kids in this situation.

When I was young, it was challenging, although my parents made sure we were okay. I was in better circumstances than these kids. But for me, hope and the dream of changing my life through the game were a big deal. It still fuels me to this day. So, for these kids to get a chance to come to the stadium or the locker room to see some of the guys can be a magical moment for them.

I am looking to start my own foundation. I want to do things with kids because by helping shape kids I believe we in fact help shape the future for humanity. Mali in particular is a place where I want to focus my efforts, being both my native land and one of the countries with the lowest education rates in the world. 

One of the greatest gifts is a genuine smile. We can go and share that energy of positivity and gratefulness with just our presence alone. I believe this impact goes far beyond most of the initiatives where we try to have an impact in a detached place.

More people reached doesn’t mean that the impact is necessarily broader nor deeper. To change the world, we don’t need to do grandiose things. To ask someone: "How are you?" with total attention and genuine concern is a grandiose act in itself.